Ashtanga practice is traditionally begun with the recitation of the mantra. What we call the Ashtanga Mantra is really two shlokas (verses) from different sources. The first is a verse from the “Yoga Taravali” by Sri Shankaracharya (one of the most important saints of India, a yoga master and proponent of Advaita Vedanta, a non-dualist Eastern philosophy) and the second verse is from a longer prayer to Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras (approximately 2,500B.C), the root text of yogic philosophy, which is a guide to yoga as a spiritual practice and an examination of our own true self and nature.
The original language of the mantra is Sanskrit, the oldest recorded language. Sanskrit was evolved in such a way that each sound is connected with a particular state of consciousness, so that a Sanskrit mantra, if you do it over and over again, will take you to a certain state of consciousness.
“Om” means all, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Om has been described as the primordial sound, represented in all living matter. Another word for “Om” is pranava, derived from the root “na” meaning to praise, to which the added prefix, “pra” denotes superiority. The word means “the best praise,” or “the best prayer.” The Sanskrit symbol AUM is composed of three syllables, (A, U, M). The letter “A” symbolizes the conscious or waking state (jagrata-avastha), the “U” is the dream state (svapna-asvastha), and the “M” is the dreamless sleep state (susupta-avastha).
The symbol in its entirety, with the crescent and the dot symbolizes the fourth state (turiya-avastha), which combines all these states and transcends them. This is the super-conscious state, or Samadhi. The letters also symbolize respectively speech (vak), the mind (manas), and the breath of life (prana). Likewise, the three letters also respectively represent the dimensions of length, breadth, and depth, while the entire symbol represents Divinity, which is beyond all shape and form. Also, the letters represent the absence of Desire, Fear, and Anger, while the whole symbol stands for the perfect human, whose wisdom is firmly established in the Divine.
Additionally, they represent the past, present, and future, and the teachings of mother, father, and guru, respectively. Also, the three limbs of yogic discipline: asana (posture), pranayama (breathing), and pratyahara(withdrawal of the senses). The whole symbol represents Samadhi, the goal for the aforementioned stages. Finally, “Om” stands for the mantra ‘Tat Twam Asi’ (That Thou Art), the realization of one’s divinity. The symbol stands for this realization, which liberates the human spirit from the confines of body, mind, and ego.
Adapted from B.K.S. Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga”
Vande Gurunam carnarvinde
I bow to the two lotus feet of the (plurality of) Gurus.
I pray to the lotus feet of the Supreme Guru.
I bow to the lotus feet of the lineage of teachers.
I prostrate myself in devotion at the Guru’s feet.
The first line is a metaphor for the practice itself. By thinking of the practice as the teacher or guru, we offer ourselves to it and look to it for guidance. We surrender ourselves the practice, trusting in the power of a tradition that has had the strength to be preserved untainted for thousands of years, a path that has been practiced for the purpose of liberation and freedom. In this usage, surrender is not a quality of weakness; rather, it means fearlessness, trust, and confidence.
It is customary in the Indian tradition to offer salutations to the source of any wisdom as a sign of humility and also to seek the blessings of the teachers before commencing any work that is important and worthy of credit. By acknowledging his teacher, Adi Sankara (who wrote the first shloka of the mantra) indicates he wants us to also follow his example so we are guided carefully and correctly.
Only then will we attain a state of mind that is characterized by peace, clarity, and joy. This is because the study of yoga is experiential, not intellectual. Hence, it is important that someone who leads us has experienced yoga in its truest sense of the word.
adapted from T.K.V. and son Kausthub Desikachar’s commentary on
Adi Sankara’s “Yoga Taravali”
This chant is also a meditation on the guru, which means “remover of darkness,” or ignorance. It also means “heavy,” not as in the guru is overweight, but heavy in the sense they’re not moved by others and the changing nature of the world; they are serene and centered.
The feet of the guru are the shelter we go to when we feel the pains of existence, in order to awaken the innate happiness of pure being, or how things really are. The guru also refers to the sushumna nadi, or plumb line, which is hollow like a reed and yet is the core from which all things are generated. This core guru has immense gravity and magnetic quality. The yogic process opens up the central channel of the body, and once prana, or energy, enters it, time and space are said to dissolve. The job of the teacher is to guide the student toward the central channel, using various techniques to awaken the student to the present moment, or raw immediate attention. The student is conversely called “laghu” or featherweight. Initially they “orbit” around the teacher’s immense gravitational field. Eventually, laghu becomes guru, or they find the guru at the core of their own heart.
adapted from Richard Freeman’s “The Yoga Matrix”
Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe
Who awakens insight into the happiness of pure Being
Who teaches the good knowledge
Who confers a great blessing on my soul
Sukha is usually translated as “happiness,” or “delight.” Bodhe comes from the Sanskrit root “bd,” which means “to know.” Together, they describe the true intent of a yoga practice: the knowledge of happiness, or the knowledge of Self, or Svatma.
Nih Sreyase Jangalikamane
Who is the doctor of the jungle
Who is the jungle physician
Who is the snake charmer
This is a metaphor for both the teacher or guru and the yoga practice. The jangalikayamane is one who is able to cure or heal. Nihsreyase means “beyond comparison” or “beyond better.” Thus, the healing possibilities of the practice itself is without equal. The metaphor of the snake charmer (Jangalikamane) used by Sankara is very symbolic. He emphasizes that through the teacher (the snake charmer), the poison in us (our ignorance) which causes misery in our lives comes under control, much like the snake charmer controlling a venomous snake.
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai
Who is able to remove the poison of the ignorance of conditioned existence
Who destroys the poisonous web of samsara, by reducing the illusions that bind us
By removing the poison of ignorance which fetters my mind to conditioned existence
Samsaras are conditioned patterns of behavior that manifest as limitations in our practice and our emotional and spiritual lives. Often we are unconscious of these conditioned responses, which create negative, or poisonous (halahala) delusions. According to T.K.V. Desikachar, “When talking about the poisonous web of samsara, Adi Sankara is referring to the problems that arise though body and mind as well as in our communication.
These are the means by which all our troubles originate and manifest themselves. It is also important to note that Sankara speaks of reducing our troubles, not destroying them. This is because he doesn’t want us to reject our troubles, but work toward resolving them.” (Yoga Taravali, 11). To think of yoga practice as a vehicle for the pacification (santyai) of this delusion (moha) is a powerful idea that calls for devotion, willingness, and surrender within ourselves.
The practice that the guru gives dispels samsara halahala, or the poison of conditioned existence. In Indian mythology, halahala, or nectar, arose when the gods were churning the ocean (symbolic of the yogic process of purification). Halahala is a deadly toxic byproduct that occurs when one inquires into the truth. As the halahala washed up onto the beaches, they didn’t know what to do with it. Shiva, the guru of gurus, appeared, and drank it without swallowing, without accepting or rejecting. The poison turned his throat blue, and that is why Shiva is called “nila cantu,” or the blue-throated one.
I prostrate before the sage Patanjali
To Patanjali, an incarnation of Adisesa
The second shloka of the mantra is an homage to Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras. By bowing, or offering praise to Patanjali, we symbolically acknowledge yoga practice as a spiritual practice and a vehicle for transformation. According to Indian mythology, Patanjali is said to be an incarnation of Adisesa, the cobra. Like teachings from all cultures, this one is metaphorical and can be read on many different levels, and you read the level you’re ready to hear.
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
White in color with 1,000 radiant heads holding a sword (discrimination), a wheel of fire (discus of light, representing infinite time), and a conch (Divine sound) From the realm of the divine, carrying a conch shell, a discus and a sword (representing mastery over language, philosophy and medicine) Basically, the imagery is telling us of Patanjali’s wisdom. From the hand to the head he has the shape (Karam) of a human (purusa). He appears white (svetum) in color, symbolizing purity, with one thousand (sahasra) radiant heads (sirasam). This illustrates that Patanjali is an “awake” or realized being, as his crown chakra, or energy center, is “open.” He holds a sword (symbolizing discrimination), a wheel of fire (cakra, or discus of light, which represents infinite time), and a conch, symbolizing divine sound, or sankha.
To him, I prostrate (give thanks, mahalo)